The Nation: Web Puts Dog-Whistle Politics on a Leash

The Nation

Web Puts Dog-Whistle Politics on a Leash

Everyone can hear it now. This Internet-driven, hyperactive presidential race is forcing accountability on two of the oldest tricks in politics: dog whistles and secret smears.


With a “dog whistle,” politicians use code words to signal unpopular stances to one target audience, while avoiding a backlash because the reference is lost on others. Many people miss President Bush’s layered language for evangelicals, from hinting that legal abortion is like slavery to his odd prediction that history will see Iraq as just “a comma.” (It only makes sense if you know the proverb, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.”) Code words don’t fool everyone, but from “states’ rights” to “welfare queens,” GOP campaigns have tapped racial resentment without facing widespread opprobrium. Secret smears run on a similar axis, enabling politicians to undermine an opponent without taking responsibility for the attack. But the times are changing.


From his race to his name, Barack Obama seemed like the perfect target for such coded attacks. Indeed, some Republicans were eager to run the old playbook on him. “Count me down as somebody who underestimates Barack Hussein Obama, please,”said GOP strategist Ed Rogers, speaking on MSNBC’sHardball in the headier days of 2006. Yet Rogers, like the McCain campaign, underestimated not only Obama but a new media model that swiftly blasts would-be Swiftboaters.

The infamous Swiftboat attacks against John Kerry, for example, were barely a blip in the 2004 presidential debates. Sure, everyone knew about them, but no voters ever saw President Bush defend them. Run the tape back to 2000, and Bush was never forced to fully answer for one of his most vile political attacks, the racist smear against John McCain’s family in the South Carolina primary. Today, it is hard to imagine a candidate in either party sliding through a presidential primary without a huge backlash for deploying that kind of attack.

This cycle, in fact, even faint dog whistles are called out in real time. When McCain launched a late-October attack on Obama, alleging that he would morph the IRS into a “welfare agency,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow bore down on the line. “Welfare? Where’d that come from?” she asked on her MSNBC show, slamming McCain for invoking a “great racially divisive codeword from the ’80s and ’90s [with] no bearing whatsoever on Barack Obama’s tax policies.”


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